The Phantom's Bargain

"Lt. Sharna Kaylen, reporting for duty, sir!" I dashed off a quick salute to the Dwarven captain who had sent for me. Goddess, I was nervous. This was to be my first solo assignment for King Valkemos and I didn't want to blow it.

"Lt. Kaylen, your assignment is simple--retrieve the Sextant of Sizzledime from the Ruins of Goriak." Oh dear Goddess, I thought, why me? I couldn’t care less about what I was going to get, but the Ruins of Goriak? Oh, please. Like I'm gonna go into someplace all by my lonesome that's been rumored to eat adventurers for breakfast? Not. But for the gold King Valkemos paid out so handsomely, I would walk through fire. I accepted the mission.

It didn't take me very long at all to gather my meager possessions together and pack my saddlebags. Stormcloud, my horse, stood patiently still while I checked and rechecked every girth strap and buckle on her tack. I grunted in satisfaction after certifying that I wasn't going to have a repeat of the last time I'd taken off on a long journey. I could still remember the hoots and hollers of the dwarves as the pony they'd assigned me dumped me on my rear in the mud...

After that, I scrimped and saved and bought my own horse. This half-elf wasn't gonna ride no dwarven pony. Uh-uh, no way. Straps set, packs loaded, I mounted Stormy and prepared to ride off into the sunrise, seeking Glory, Fame, Adventure -- oh who was I kidding? I was just following my damn orders.

"Hyah!" I yelled and slammed my heels into Stormy's sides. Stormy swivelled her head around and gave me a long, patient look. Well, it sounds good in bardic epics. Just then, my commander wandered by.

"Lieutenant?" Captain Meldrak huffed through his thick brown beard.

"Yessir?" I snapped to attention, jamming my heels further into my mare's sides causing her to whinny and dance a bit in confusion.

"Get outta here!" the stubby humanoid shouted, his florid mustache hairs fluttering in the wind of his command.

"Right-away-sir!" I nudged Stormy one more time and finally she got the hint and took off at a rapid skip. That's right. Skip. My horse, just like myself, was nowhere near normal. Unless you count being a young, female half-breed soldier in King Valkemos' Legions of Honor as normal. A legion which had been, until recently all male and all Dwarven. I won my position as Lieutenant of the Sixth by drinking King Valkemos' son under the table three nights running.

Lemme tell you, nothing is funnier than a drunken Dwarven Prince sliding under a long table while his father looks on in absolute disgust as the rest of the hall erupts into various cheers, laughter, grunts, groans and other assorted bodily functions. And that is how I ended up being a lieutenant in a Dwarven legion.

Day fourteen of my journey had come and gone, just as the thirteen previous days have, with a whimper not a bang. Not an orc, giant rat, over-sized spider, oh hell, not even a bad case of poison ivy to make my trip more interesting. This did NOT bode well for the actual Ruins. I figured that if the gods were being so nice to me on my way in, that was only because they were saving up to wallop me a good one when I got there. I just hoped that my Legionnaire's Contract provided for MIA burials. In a few days, I would arrive at the Ruins, so tonight, I paid extra special attention to the perimeter of my encampment, laying out several small, but painful traps to ward off whatever might come at me in the night.

Sitting by my fire, eating my bowl of traveler's stew, I allowed myself to daydream about home. My mother died many years ago, so it had been up to my father to raise me, and I suppose that he'd done an ok job of it. I remembered that he'd been really awesome at teaching me all the great tomboy things like swinging a sword, baiting a hook, and the best way to gut a deer. I don't ever recall him giving me fashion advice or lessons in manners, but it never really seemed to affect me.

Until I had visited my first city that is. Talk about culture shock! When I first laid eyes on all those scantily clad women with their faces painted up brighter than a Solstice Tree I about left my jaw in the mud. Worse still was the reaction of the town's men to me. They all sorta circled around me, like a wolf sniffing a newcomer to the pack. Deciding that I was too strange to be trouble, they attempted to capture me for sale to a traveling side show. I guess they were rather surprised to discover that not only did I carry a sword, I knew how to use it. After I'd bested six of them in combat, they decided that no matter how strange I looked, (and you have to admit, a human looking woman with long, pointed ears is strange) I wasn't worth the trouble of capture. I didn't stick around town too long though, in case they decided that maybe I was worth it after all.

After my experience with a human city, I avoided all humans, just in case... A branch snapped in the fire, sending sparks twirling skyward. Terra firma to Lt. Sharna? Hello? You're supposed to be on attention to your surroundings. Who knows what boggins lurk behind the trees?

"Probably none," I grumped aloud, almost hoping for some kind of excitement to liven up the night and entertain me more than my own melancholy thoughts.

Four more days on the road, four more days of utter boredom. Oh, I almost forgot,  there was the tinker's family I ran into. They were good for about ten laughs, then the screams of their twenty children set my teeth on edge and I rode on, continuing my seemingly endless journey to the Ruins of Goriak. I traveled through the Forest of Fearsome Dooms, (which was about as fearsome as polishing my sword); the Mountains of Ever Falling,  (nothing fell on me); and across the Plains of Disaster  (the only thing disaterous about those plains were that they were jus that -- plain.); and finally reached my goal -- the Ruins of Goriak.

I staggered to a final stop before two towers that stood, scratching the sky with clawlike abandon. Fear is not my friend, I decided as spider tendrils of the gut twisting emotion crawled up and down my spine. "Time to pay the piper." I swallowed hard and strode defiantly to the single portal in the wall and leaned on the rotting timber. The hinges groaned rustily as the wooden door vanished into the dusty night.  I looked inside. Dust, cobwebs and various rodential skitterings greeted me. Damn this place needs a maid.

A whispering chill floated out. I shielded my courage around me and pushed on into the darkness. Darker than a demon's soul on a Sunday only companion was my thoughts, which were not helping any. My natural night vision began to fail me, and so, grumbling about what a waste it was to have it if it was gonna be so damn useless, I lit a torch. I rounded a corner of the hall I had decided to explore, my hands ghost-light on the pitted surface of the tower stone and stopped when my ears picked up the echoes of another large chamber before me.

A flash of light, a whisper of sound, and I was engaged in mortal combat with a guy in black armor. Holy three ringed toad eyes! I thought to myself, this guy is good. I always thought I was ok with the two blades, but this guy was kicking my butt good. We traded blows left and right around and back, and I was pretty sure that I would be cashing it in on the first fight, when something inside of me snapped. I wanted to live, damnit, and I wasn't gonna let no walking advertisement for blacksmithing schools beat me.

Slash! Once, he fell back. Slash! Twice, he was down. Raising my swords to the ceiling, I plunged them down into the carcass below me. Screeling metal to metal chirps broke the unnatural silence. I fell, breathing hard, blood from a gash on my forehead obscuring my sight. I'm bleeding? Eep. Then metal man blew up in my face and I passed out.

I'm not sure if it was my own stubbornness that allowed me to live or Providence, but when I awoke, feeling the sharp prick of a rat's teeth on my booted foot, I jumped up, ran around the room a few times, and sang "The Battle of Ballydrane the Great" six times in a row, in Dwarven.

"Well all right! I feel fine, I'm gonna kill me a lot of mimes. Yessir, I'm drunk, but that's fine, cuz I'm not a lunk." It was a strange, silly song that my Dwarven friends had taught me on one of my first outings with them. To this day I still have no clue what it all means. Fed, bandaged, and filled with new resolve, I set off once again down another hall. I had come here to get the Sextant of Sizzledime and I wasn't leaving without it.

Twist and turn and room upon room later, I stood before two double doors. The massive lock boggled my mind. I'm not a thief, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to break this damn door down, so I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. I shouldn't have worried. At my tentative caress, the doors swung wide open. Sword in hand, I peered inside. It was the study. Walls and cases of rotting, tumbling books filled my eyes. A treasure trove of Knowledge that meant nothing to me, as I could not read.

A voice from within whispered, "Come in...sit down...ahh...I see you defeated my guardian." Cautiously, I tiptoed into the room. Beside the small hearth were a large divan and a chair upon which something sat. I crept up to the chair and my heart nearly stopped when I beheld what lounged within -- a skeletal figure in a great black cloak. Who is this guy? I wondered. The spokesperson for The Dungeon Master Diet Plan? He gestured to the divan. "Please, sit down. I don't bite...anymore." Yeah, right. And if I believe that, I bet he has a bridge to sell me... I sat warily. "You have bested my simple challenge. Very good." Simple? Metalman was simple? Oh crud...I'm in deep ca-ca now.

"What do you want? Who are you?" I hoped my voice did not sound as terrified as I felt. This thing before me exuded some sensation that my young heart interpreted as resignation.

"Call me...Shadowfiend." Uh oh, this does not sound promising. "Many eons ago, an evil warlock cursed me and imprisoned my soul in a gem of power.  Eventually, this gem came into the possession of Ba'alzabub and he set me to work as his chief harvester of souls.  But enough of my dark evil past.  At the current moment, the only thing I desire is...RELEASE!"

His shout bounced around the library, causing the bindings of books to shatter and the hairs on my arms to stiffen. Ok, I'd had enough of his dramatics. Time to earn my gold. Not being a necromancer or even a priest of some obscure death cult, I decided that the best way to grant the demon's wish was to kill him. My sword, which had rested against my thigh, was now poised at his throat.

"I cannot free you from this curse you speak of." My fear was gone now, only the resolution to complete my quest remained. Since I knew that I would have to recite what was happening as close to verbatim as possible, I chose my words carefully, and said, "But I can give you peace." There, that sounds heroic enough.

"Do not mock me, woman!" His eyes glowed like hot coals from a smithy's forge. Then, the flavor of his voice changed, becoming soft and sad. "You can free me."

"Excuse me?" I interjected.

"I propose a bargain. I will grant you this castle and all in it if you will carry my seed."

"So you're a plant?" I asked, confused. Really Dead Guy just rolled his eyes and sighed as though to say "mortals!".

"No, I'm not a plant. I meant, you can have all this if you have my baby."

My legs buckled and I sat back, flabbergasted. Sex? With a demon? I would be cursed by every light following faith on this world. Not to mention losing my fairly good job in the Dwarven Legion. This adventure was turning out to be a whole lot more than I bargained for.

Did I want children? Never mind the question of parentage. I knew I wanted to retrieve the Sextant for King Valkemos, and if the castle and contents were mine, I could do that easily. Was the completion of my quest worth giving up the rest of my life? I had a sickly feeling that I would not be able to defeat the demon before me in combat. I also knew that I had sworn on my honor that I would return to my Lord with the item he sought. What price would I pay for my honor? I found that I did not know the answer.

Shadowfiend appeared to be very amused by my prolonged silence. Finally, I looked into his dark-cowled face. "This is not how the Hero's Handbook said this kind of thing was supposed to work.  I'm supposed to fight you, you're supposed to mortally wound me and then at the very last second I'm supposed to pull off the Sword Strike of the Century, killing you for all time.  Ok, so I guess I have to just wing it.  Um...ok, can I ask you some questions?"

"Ask. I have nothing to hide from you."

"You speak of carrying your seed. Does this mean, that I, ah, have to do the Funky Dwarven Tango with you?"

He laughed. It was an eerie sound, coming from fabric covered bones. "No, I would cast a spell and you would receive my essence and become pregnant."

"Well thank the spirits for small favors, I was wondering about, well considering you're all well, I'm positive that I wouldn't understand your magic, but if you say so. Ok, so I get "with child" and all that...nine months down the road am I gonna pop out with a baby girl skeleton or have little boy ghouls running around?" The gaunt face almost shattered in a grimace that might have once been a smile.

"As I was once mortal, and you are now mortal, so shall the child be mortal, with all the choices a mortal is granted."

"So the child would not be inherently evil?"

"No more so than you or any other."

"I see." At least, I thought I did. A child. Children. My children. I was a warrior in my prime. If I did this, I would be giving up my life as a fighter, at least as long as it took to bring the life forth. Could I do this? As if to answer my question, a sudden vision of a snow-laden courtyard filled my mind. Giddy laughter drifted through the vision and a boy of indeterminate age toddled into a patch of winter's blanket and fell giggling backwards to make snow angels while a softer faced version of myself looked on in amusement. Something about this dream felt right, felt good. I thought for a while.

I mean, heck, this guy was offering to give me a pretty cool castle, filled with riches galore, kids to carry on my name, and a chance to prove to everyone that being a half-elf isn't so bad after all. What was I going to do? What would my father do? It suddenly dawned on me that I didn't really want to spend my entire life fighting for short drunk guys with long fuzzy beards either. "Ok, I'll take your bargain, on one condition though."

"What is that?"

"That you swear never to bring hurt to me, my kin or my friends."

"I can only swear for me now, not for me to come. But, I so swear." And out of nowhere a beautiful crystalline dagger appeared. We swore blood-oath then: I to carry his child, and he not to endanger. As our essences mingled, I lost consciousness.

When I awoke, it was eight and a half months later. My father was beside me, dabbing my brow with a cool cloth. I was laying on a down filled bed and my belly was large with child.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I yelped as a searing pain tore through my stomach...then something broke and there was fluid everywhere.  Here we go! Talk about your easy pregnancies...

"I was brought here some time ago, but how, I don't know," he said as he helped me prepare for birth.

Hours later I birthed twins, one bright and sunny as a summer's day; him I named Kaynal, which in the old language means "sunborn." The other was dark and serious as a winter's night, he I named Shaynal which means "moonborn." My sons are healthy and strong and I will raise them to be good and honorable and loving and joyful.

And As I sit watching them sleep, I knew I would never regret having made the phantom's bargain.

Oh, yeah, and King Valkemos finally got his Sextant, which I found lying in puddle of dust on a shelf in the pantry three days after Kay and Shay had been born. Guess some king's trash is another's treasure.



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